Coping with COVID Tips, Part VI: End-of-School-Year Disappointments

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Dr. Watson's photo with the title 'Coping with Covid Tips 6 part series with Dr. Watson'

Families, Inc. Trumann Clinical Supervisor and psychologist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly this spring on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset during the coronavirus pandemic. The following transcript is of her conversation with KFIN’s Brandon Baxter on May 13, 2020.

Q: A lot of kids out there had big plans for kindergarten, high school, college, military graduations. There are lots of sad kids and families.

Oh, my gosh, absolutely! Whether it was your baby’s kindergarten graduation—like ours—or your senior graduation, the culmination of all your years of hard work… And, let’s be honest, also your parent’s hard work and the finale of raising your child into adulthood. It is so disappointing!

And there are so many other people who are faced with abruptly changed plans and dashed dreams! Proms and baby showers, school projects, military graduations and playoff games… There are probably so many more. All of this planning and anticipating—and praying! All of these people are also surrounded by support groups and families who are experiencing similar feelings. It’s just so easy to feel lost right now. And mad. And sad.
 

Q: And scary for a lot of folks, too!

There is such a wide range of emotions. Remember that with only a few days’ notice, the colleges shut down. There were lots of students who had to hurriedly pack up their dorms and return home. Some were international students. Some actually had to stay on campus because they had no other housing option.
 

Q: So, what kind of toll can it take on students who are missing these important events?

It’s important to recognize that these events are also milestones, developmental milestones and cultural rites of passage, in many different respects. The children who are graduating high school and college were beginning to individuate—a process of finding out more about themselves, who they are, what they want from life… Those other students were their support systems. In some cases, it’s a pretty significant loss, and they may need time to get back to where they were.

Q: How can parents help?

Well, in a lot of ways, even though parents have had more experience in handling setbacks and transitions, this is new to them, too. They certainly don’t have all of the answers—who does?! But there are some tools that they can use to help navigate their child’s disappointment.

Parents must remember that our kids are watching us. We have to get our own minds right so that we can then guide our children through these experiences in healthy ways.

First, acknowledge their feelings of disappointment and anger and sadness. For most young people, this is the biggest loss they’ve experienced yet. They’re too young to remember 9/11, so this is the biggest negative event they’ve had to endure. And it’s very hard to begin the process of learning how unpredictable life can be. Parents can really help cushion some of this blow by allowing them to have their feelings, express themselves and be heard.
 

Q: You’re a big advocate for feeling your feelings and allowing others to do the same. You always say the stuff we’re afraid of is a lot less scary and isn’t as intense once we stop trying to stuff it down and actually allow ourselves to feel it.

Yep! And part of expressing it and feeling it is staying connected to others, finding ways to stay emotionally and socially connected while we can’t be physically connected.

This is a wonderful time to encourage them [children] to begin journaling and recording their thoughts and feelings or to put those feelings into art or music.
 

Q: I think what made the losses so much worse is that we had no control over what was happening to all of us.

Absolutely. We’ve talked before about how certain aspects of what we have and will endure can be traumatic and for some, retraumatizing. So, focusing on what you can control is so important. Graduation may be postponed or canceled, but young people can plan special events for when after the pandemic has ended—perhaps a trip with best friends or a post-graduation party. Focus on the positive events that can occur at the end of this crisis. Envision how you can celebrate, and maybe even start making plans now.
 

Q; And young people are usually super resilient. How can we use this as an opportunity to teach them new skills?

One day this is going to be over, but there are awesome lessons about handling setbacks and disappointments that we can begin to teach now that will last a lifetime. And I definitely want to encourage you to teach lessons that will increase resilience—the getting back up and trying again, the setting new goals and trying new things lessons, the making lemonade lessons—not those “me against them” or angry and blaming lessons that will never serve them and will only hurt them.

I want us to teach our children that what we are doing now is for ourselves, and our communities and our world. That they have this unique opportunity to contribute in small ways toward the greater good. Your children will grow to understand that they matter, their behaviors and actions and mindsets matter, and we must think and act in ways that keep us—and others—safer.